On Wednesday, March 8, Boston Symphony principal bass Ed Barker gave a fantastic mastercless. The class was held in Roosevelt University’s beautiful Ganz Hall (pictured above) and was open to the general public free of charge. Four Roosevelt University students performed, and Mr. Barker devoted a half-hour to each of them. All four students played solo repertoire, which is a shame–it would have been wonderful to hear Mr. Barker coach a student on the orchestral literature. The pieces played were Paganini’s Moses Fantasy, the Courante and Gigue from Bach’s Suite No. 3 for violoncello, the rarely played Hoffmiester edition of the Dittersdorf concerto (mvt. 1), and the Bottesini Concerto (mvt. 1). The students playing the Moses Fantasy and the Dittersdorf Concerto used piano accompaniment, while the student playing the Bottesini Concerto opted for no piano accompaniment (as did the student playing Bach, obviously).
Mr. Barker’s master class was a fascinating glimpse into his personal teaching and playing philosophy. With each student he stressed the need for developing a strong bow arm, encouraging the students to practice scales, arpeggios, 3rds, and 5ths in all keys, in all areas of the bass, with a countless array of (Sevcik-style) bowings. He described first, second, and third scenario fingerings. First scenario fingerings cross all the strings in the low positions and climb up the G string. He mentioned these as being most useful for lyrical passages. Second scenario fingerings climbed up the E or A string to the neck positions, crossed to the G string while in the neck positions, and climbed the G string in thumb position. Third scenario fingerings climb the lower strings into thumb position and cross wile in thumb position. Mr. Barker also advocated pivoting (he calls it “rocking”) in the neck positions to avoid small shifts. He credits second and third scenario fingerings with raising the level of bass playing in recent years to basically the level of violin playing. He stressed the extreme importance of keeping left hand fingers curved and hovering over the notes they are about to play at all times, and playing with two different possible finger angles–perpendicular for technical playing and slightly more slanted (not NOT collapsed) to aid in vibrato for lyrical playing.
Mr. Barker’s thoughts on practicing were very insightful. He stressed the importance of using different rhythms and bowing to practice passages, and of occasionally reversing bowings. He describes the human neurological system as a ball of clay. Every time one practices a passage, that ball of clay gets a groove imprinted in it. Repetition of a passage deepens the groove, making the passage more solidly imprinted in the nervous system. Using different rhythms and bowings widens the groove, making it even more solid (and less likely that you’ll screw it up under pressure). The longer you play bass, the more your clay ball is occured in grooves, and the smarter you practice (Sevcik and related exercises), the stronger, deeper, and wider those grooves are.
Mr. Barker frequently focused his teaching down to a single note, describing how good players focus on the beginning and middle of notes, while great players focus of the beginning, middle, and end of notes, and how the end one note related to the beginning of the next note. Notes are letters which form musical syllables, which combine to form musical phrases, which become movements, which become entire pieces, which form programs, etc. He also showed how to intelligently use the resonance of the room you are playing in and how to find different ways of emphasizing notes (either crescendo/decrescendo, accenting through vibrato or volume, or deemphasizing what goes on around a specific note).
He frequently spoke of developing a “sophisticated” bow arm, and how crucial this is to your music-making. Also, he pointed out that at a high level one cannot separate technique and musicality. Good technique is good musicality and vice-versa.
Lastly, Roosevelt University is extremely lucky to have a hall such as Ganz Hall. This may be one of the most beautiful small halls I have ever seen, and its acoustics are absolutely astounding. It is part of the Auditorium Theatre building, which was designed by the renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan in the late 19th century. This hall is unbelievable!